Stab Magazine | The art of happiness, with Caleb Reid

The art of happiness, with Caleb Reid

Story by Jed Smith | Photos by Brad Malyon “They’re all millionaires now,” laughs Caleb as he applies the finishing touches to his latest piece. We’re in the garage-come-studio-come living space he rents in Bondi for $100 a week and the millionaires he’s talking about are Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith and Jeremy Flores – his […]

style // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Story by Jed Smith | Photos by Brad Malyon

“They’re all millionaires now,” laughs Caleb as he applies the finishing touches to his latest piece. We’re in the garage-come-studio-come living space he rents in Bondi for $100 a week and the millionaires he’s talking about are Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith and Jeremy Flores – his fellow finalists in the 2006 World Junior Championships in Brazil. In it, Caleb came from nowhere to snatch a third, beating Jeremy but losing to winner Julian and second place Jordy. While they tour the world in luxury, Caleb lives off $200 a week in government welfare. His home is a mouldy garage rammed with his artworks, and he couldn’t be happier. “There’s no way I’d rather be for the rest of my life. There’s no other way. It’s just so much fun waking up each morning and making something,” he says. 

Some of his optimism can be put down to the heartbreaking run of events that have dogged him since adolescence. At 12, he lost his mother in a freak canoeing accident in Kangaroo Valley on the NSW South Coast. Thereafter he fell into a crippling bout of depression, which he was unable to shake despite rising to the top of the Australian junior surfing world. Surfing too, eventually lost its appeal and for a while it looked as though Caleb might struggle to make adulthood. Then he found art.


Former junior star, Caleb Reid tells how depression cruelled his surfing career before he found peace (and another promising career) in art. Photo by Brad Malyon.

Raised in Bronte beach, a 15 minute bus ride from Sydney’s inner-city art precincts of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst, Caleb’s been surrounded by painters, ceramicists, glassmakers and surfers for as long as he can remember. But this was back before the city gentrified, when Sydney’s east still offered low-cost housing and housed an eclectic mix of artists, surfers and musicians. Caleb says he was the “frothingest grommet ever” as a kid and grew up compiling picture books out of Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow. He dreamed of one day riding for one of the big companies but the passing of his mother buckled his world. “I think I was always prone to depression but this brought it on pretty full on,” he says.  

As he fell backwards into an abyss of despair, Caleb was given time off school and given instructions to go out into the world and do the one thing that brought him the most joy. “I surfed my tits off,” he says and before long he was destroying the Junior Series with Rip Curl as a sponsor.  This was around the time Owen Wright and Matt Wilkinson were on the team and Caleb was up there with them. After he cracked the final of the World Juniors it seemed certain he’d take the next step onto the World Tour, but he wasn’t ready. Behind the scenes the wheels were starting to fall off; the pressures and popularity contest of being a high profile junior start playing havoc with his emotions.”I was just freaked out by the whole thing and a bit starstruck by everything around me. I was very much a follower and I just got lost,” he says, pausing for a moment. “I got lost,” he says finally.

His family could see him going backwards and reached out to the surfing community for help. Five time women’s world champion, Layne Beachley, herself a former sufferer of depression and chronic fatigue, answered the call, even coming across to meet with Caleb and offering him the chance to call her anytime. But the spiral continued.  “There’s something about depression that’s very comforting when you’re in it,” says Caleb. “It’s easy to go into it and it feels quite good to feel depressed.” 


Yes, Caleb Reid still surfs, and yes, he still rips. Photo by Brad Malyon.

The breakthrough came when a family member bought him some life drawing lessons – an art class which basically encourages the painter to pour their feelings out onto the paper. It felt good. It was the first time anything had felt good for Caleb in a long time. “I just loved it. Learning around art was so good. I learned so much so quickly,” he says.

With the focus and commitment that propelled him to the top of the surfing world now trained on art, he began to excel. His teacher took the opportunity to submit some of his work to the Sydney Art school along with an application, and he was accepted. He’s never looked back.

“It changed my whole world and I realised this is the way I want to be for the rest of my life,” he says. By now an accumulation of things had caused him to fall out of love with surfing. Crowded Sydney beaches, bad waves and a waning interest in competing saw him drift away from a career in the sport. Now he was just happy to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.


Catch Caleb’s solo show this Thursday, June 19, at the Beach Road Hotel, Bondi Beach.

“It’s one of those things you slowly have to find your happiness and you learn where to find your happiness and what things make you happy,” he says. “There’s a fun side to competing but it wore me down a bit. I lost the fun thing from my surfing, which I’m trying to find again.”

As Caleb perfects the curves on his latest piece he takes a moment to stop and admire the work. Then he laughs out loud. At its core, Caleb’s art attempts to strike a direct line to his fluctuating mental state. He also draws heavily on his craggy emotional past. It’s at once cathartic while also brutally honest. His first show – a combined show with his ex-girlfriend – sold out in an hour and a half and when I visit his garage today it’s jammed with an eclectic display of works (ranging from dark, abstract acrylics to colourful, flowing depictions of the female form).

Right now he’s feeling stoned and mischievous so he’s working on something suitably whacky: a gratuitous orgy scene in which some 30 characters are fuck, suck, fist, whip, slap, eat arse, stick foot in arse and, in one particularly amusing scene, pull hair while jerking off into his own mouth. It’s then that I look up and see his middle-aged landlady standing at the entrance to the garage. She walks over an curiously regards the piece he’s working on. She’s got news for him and I’m worried it’s going to be for Caleb to get his hessian arse out of her otherwise respectable eastern suburbs property. But I’m way off. “I love it, Caleb! It reminds me of, oh what was that film? The Human Centipede (the horror film in which people have their mouths sewn to people’s arses)! Have you seen The Human Centipede?” she asks. The next five minutes is spent discussing famous orgy scenes in popular culture, which I take my queue to leave.

Catch Caleb’s solo this Thursday, June 19, at the Beach Road Hotel, Bondi Beach. You can also see more of Caleb’s work here.



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